August 5, 2020

Congregationalism First, Evangelicalism Later

In the November 2007 Issue of Touchstone Magazine, there’s a fascinating forum/symposium on “Evangelicalism Today.” It’s available in its entirety on the Touchstone website, and it is well worth your time. Such diverse voices as Russell Moore, Daryl Hart, John Franke and Michael Horton discuss a variety of topics of interest to the IM audience.

Southern Baptist theologian Russell Moore had some very provocative words to say about his own definition and experience of evangelicalism. I’m particularly interested in the last two paragraphs.

Evangelicalism is Protestant, and thoroughly so: The sola statements of the Reformation represent how Evangelicals understand what it means to be centered upon Christ. Evangelicalism is also inexplicable apart from a sense of Great Commission urgency to seek and save that which is lost.

The definition has indeed changed over the past half-century. What would have been considered non-negotiable for Evangelical identity fifty years ago (the truthfulness of Scripture, the impossibility of salvation apart from faith in Christ) is now often considered “Fundamentalist.”

I think the term “Evangelical” is less and less of value. I rarely use it of myself, except in the broadest of terms to describe myself to someone in another tradition. On Sunday morning, I do not go to an “Evangelical” church, but to Ninth and O Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist church with which I am in holy covenant and through which I cooperate with like-minded churches across the country to fulfill the Great Commission.

The people to whom I am held accountable share with me a common confession of faith—one that includes Great Tradition affirmations such as the deity of Christ and the virgin birth and Reformation distinctives such as justification through faith alone by grace alone in Christ alone. The sermon is central, and concludes with a call for unbelievers to identify publicly with Christ and his church. If that’s “Evangelical,” so be it.

Moore is saying that he doesn’t find evangelicalism “out there” somewhere, but that he finds evangelicalism in a particular church with roots, mission, tradition and connection.

This is typical of the Baptist reaction to the term evangelical. In the 1980’s, a number of Baptist theologians on the moderate-liberal side of the fence were distancing themselves from the increasing use of the term evangelical. They felt they had a better pedigree, a more substantial identity and a deeper substance in their identity as Baptists.

Now I know my Baptist family well enough to know that we are not exactly the world’s greatest joiners. My team, the Southern Baptists, actually withdrew from the worldwide Baptist body The Baptist Alliance because…..well……because……well…….something Mohler read somewhere was just intolerable. And instead of using our clout to change things- the SBC was the biggest contributor to the BWA- we just left. Because….we’re just happier when we can pretend its just us.

But I don’t think Moore or those moderate Baptists were entirely wrong on this one. The less evangelicalism is a term used to describe something about congregations, the worse things seem to get. The general vacuity of evangelicalism today is everywhere, but where it is being reversed, it’s being reversed primarily by people who are rediscovering orthodoxy, orthopraxy and missional purpose in local congregations.

Perhaps the worst recent development in evangelicalism is the beginning stages of selling Christianity as an individual self-improvement philosophy, discussed over coffee, Googled and networked online and practiced mostly by consuming some aspect of evangelical style, product or experience. There are more and more evangelicals who are envisioning the demise of the congregation as the primary expression of Christian community.

Evangelicals are people, as one forum participant points out from the EO perspective, who value the unmediated, direct experience of God more than anything else. I’ll submit that history and experience are loudly teaching us that’s all fine in its place, but it’s frequently the path of rapid burnout and disillusionment.

That’s not to overlook the many failures of congregations, but it’s not to overlook the implausibility of evangelicalism surviving as a movement defined by individualism more than community. There is no comparison of the hope offered by a diffused and consumeristically dominated evangelical movement to that of a reimagined and reinvigorated congregationalism.

I say all of this because there is a growing aspect of evangelicalism that is prepared to delete congregational Christianity from the menu and morph the movement into something resembling a worldwide Jesus fan club with a products page and lots of rad music.

Dr. Moore makes sense to me. Evangelicalism, whatever that is, should take a back seat to the rediscovery of congregational, covenantal, confessional Christianity.


  1. Great post! Evangelicalism can be very happy by simply isolating itself into Individualism, which is the antithesis of Evangelism. A renewed sense of Evangelicalism as the Spirit-led, Christ-loving, Gospel-living, Word-trusting, Grace-relating people of God, people living out the incredible message of a vital and real relationship with God together in Christ would be well worth resurrecting.

    But let’s not ditch the word for anything “post” – post-evangelicalism, post-church, or post-rational. Let’s move forward, toward Christ, not away from a word hollowed of meaning.

  2. As was widely recognized during the Reformation, if one challenges the Church (using Lenny Bruce’s definition), the issue of church governance is a fundamental issue. Whether congregationalist, presbyterian or episcopal in viewpoint, one can’t avoid ecclesial structure if one wishes to get beyond pure individualism.